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Planning For A Possible Pandemic

“Obviously, human health is first and the animals second, but we would do our utmost to ensure that the animals are looked after so there are no animal welfare issues.”

– SHEILA MOWAT

Cows won’t get the flu, but a lot of farmers might. If even half of what public health officials are saying, both publicly and privately, about how a possible H1N1 pandemic might play out in the coming months turns out to be true, then adhering to the boy scouts’ motto of “Be prepared” may prove well worth the effort.

With this in mind, Manitoba’s various livestock associations are dusting off old worst-case scenario plans or drafting new strategies to keep animals fed and cared for.

Sheila Mowat, general manager for the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association, said a document outlining the organization’s response is already being prepared.

The first line of defence is based on the “resourcefulness” of ranchers, who, as in the past, have always shown a willingness to help each other out in times of trouble, and their determination to look after their herds – even if they become deathly ill.

“With cattle producers, what we see traditionally is that everybody knows who their neighbours are. That’s one of the advantages of being rural Manitoba,” she said.

“Say a neighbour breaks his leg, and he’s not able to get out. He just picks up the phone, calls his neighbour and says, ‘I need help. Can you drop a bunch of bales out for my cows?’”

PROTOCOL

If the flu hits hard over a wide area, MCPA officials would activate one of their emergency plans, based on the “top-five” risks, covering everything from foreign animal disease outbreaks to massive droughts, ice storms or floods.

Within those existing plans are protocols to find people who could provide feed to cattle herds owned by ranchers too sick to work.

In addition, many municipalities and higher levels of government already have such documents prepared, Mowat said. The MCPA would work within that framework, which would probably include a provincial-level emergency control centre.

“If it gets that bad as a pandemic, it would be declared an emergency. Once that kicks in, there’s a whole different set of rules,” said Mowat.

“Obviously, human health is first and the animals second, but we would do our utmost to ensure that the animals are looked after so there are no animal welfare issues.”

Andrew Dickson, general manager of the Manitoba Pork Council, said all indications so far seem to show that in the vast majority of cases, H1N1 is a mild flu variant from which most people quickly recover.

“We’ll handle it the same way we would any other flu outbreak,” he said. “For example, if a worker is not well, he would stay at home until he recovers, then come to work when he’s fit. If it’s a family operation, there’ll be uncles or cousins who will come over and help if someone is laid up in bed with the flu.

“With this particular disease, humans actually pose more of a threat to the pigs. So it’s the same thing. If you’re not well, stay at home, because we don’t want the pigs getting the flu.”

If the virus mutates into a more dangerous form, MPC already has plans in place to cover any disease scenario.

“If the government says that the flu virus has mutated into a serious threat to both humans and animals, then those procedures – which our producers are well aware of – would come into play,” he said.

“WHO-TO-CALL”

David Wiens, chair of the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba, said a pandemic planning guide developed by the Canadian Dairy Commission for the provincial organizations a couple of years ago was sent out to the 400 dairy farms in the province earlier this spring.

In it are templates formalizing preparation measures. Producers are required to assemble a “who-to-call” list of backup and replacement workers, feed suppliers and bulk milk truckers, with the goal of keeping dairy herds alive and producing food for the public under any scenario.

“Every producer has to determine who that will be, and develop the emergency contact information of any number that they may need, everything from the regional health authority to municipal emergency response contacts to even the fire or ambulance,” said Wiens.

If the owner becomes incapacitated, then the farm manager or a predetermined emergency backup person with enough knowledge of the operation to keep things running at the most basic level would step in.

Wayne Hiltz, general manager of Manitoba Chicken Producers, said all the province’s broiler farms have long been required to have emergency response plans in place for a number of scenarios. The “master checklist” of potential solutions includes the names and phone numbers of backup workers and are subject to annual audits and kept on file.

The typical modern broiler operation uses automated feeding, ventilation and watering systems which minimize the workload. On most farms, one person does most of the day-to-day work of monitoring the flock.

“I would say that pretty much every farm would be in a situation where if someone was sick they would be able to send a second person in with a phone call,” said Hiltz. [email protected]

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